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The Nation as a Communal Good: A Nationalist Response to the Liberal Conception of Community*

  • Siobhan Harty (a1)


Recent work in the field of liberal political philosophy has focused on the value of cultural communities for the individual. The claim that liberal theory can give explicit recognition to the fact that individuals are rooted in a social context has produced an important debate about the preservation of minority cultures and a liberal defence of nationalism. This literature should be of interest to scholars of nationalism because liberal theorists have used concepts related to the nation, such as self-determination, in ways that go against conventional usage, and liberal theorists have made claims about the relationship of the right and the good with which some students of nationalism would disagree. This article presents a nationalist response to the liberal conception of community by developing one possible nationalist argument for the priority of the good over the right by claiming that the nation is a communal good. The author illustrates this argument with examples of the political projects of nationalists-in-government in the developed West. Liberals need not be concerned with this reality since democratic institutions will set some limits on nationalist projects by ensuring that they are the outcome of democratic processes. On this view, the importance of self-determination is that it provides the context for the creation of institutions for a debate about the relationship of the right and the good. Self-determination does not, as some liberal nationalists argue, constitute an automatic right to cultural preservation.

La valeur des communautés culturelles pour l'individu a récemment fait l'objet de plusieurs études dans le domaine de la théorie libérale. Le fait que ces dernieres reconnaissent explicitement que les individus sont enracinés dans un contexte social a donné lieu à un important debat sur la vision libérale de la préservation des cultures minoritaires et de la défense du nationalisme. Cette littérature devrait susciter I'intérêt des spécialistes du nationalisme, d'une part parce que les théoriciens libéraux utilisent des concepts reliés à la nation, tel l'autodétermination, dans un sens contraire à l'usage conventionnel; d'autre part, parce qu'ils proposent une définition de la relation entre le droit et le bien qui ne concorde pas avec celle de plusieurs spécialistes du nationalisme. Ce texte oppose à la conception libérale de la communauté une approche nationaliste qui défend la priorité du bien sur celle du droit et conçoit la nation comme un bien communautaire. II illustre cette demière par des références aux projets politiques des forces nationalistes au pouvoir au sein des sociétés occidentals. Les libéraux n'ont pas besoin de faire face à cette réalité empirique puisque les institutions démocratiques imposent certaines limites aux projets nationalistes, en s'assurant qu'ils découlent de processus démocratiques. Dans cette perspective, l'importance de l'autodétermination découle du fait qu'elle crée le contexte dans le cadre duquel les institutions sont établies, permettant dès lors un débat sur la relation entre le droit et le bien. L'autodétermination ne constitue pas, nonobstant les arguments de certains nationalists libéraux, un droit automatique à la préservation de l'identite culturelle.



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1 Kymlicka, Will, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 168.

2 Tamir, Yael, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 33.

3 See Kymlicka, Will, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); and the relevant chapters in McKim, Robert and McMahan, Jeff, eds., The Morality of Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). For a distinct argument in favour of minority rights that is guided by constitutional conventions see Tully, James, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 165176.

4 I say “some” because liberal theorists do not grant that there is an absolute right to self-determination but only a prima facie right that must be curbed when selfdetermination would result in illiberal and undemocratic practices. Daniel Philpott, for example, argues “for limitations of illiberal, undemocratic, mixed, and divided groups” (Philpott, Daniel, “In Defense of Self-Determination,” Ethics 105 [1995], 371).

5 Goodin, Robert E., “What Is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?Ethics 98 (1988), 663686; Hurka, Thomas, “The Justification of National Partiality,” in McKim, and McMahan, , eds., The Morality of Nationalism, 139157; Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, chap. 8; McMahan, Jeff, “The Limits of National Partiality,” in McKim, and McMahan, , eds., The Morality of Nationalism, 107138; Miller, David, “The Ethical Significance of Nationality,” Ethics 98 (1988), 647662; Miller, David, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), chap. 3; and Nathanson, Stephen, “In Defense of ‘Moderate Patriotism,’Ethics 99 (1989), 535552.

6 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, 105. Ernest Gellner defines nationalism as the imposition of a shared high culture on society (Nations and Nationalism [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983], 57). Michael Mann defines “nationalism conventionally as an ideology which asserts the moral, cultural and political primacy of an ethnic group” (“The Emergence of Modern European Nationalism,” in Hall, John A. and Jarvie, Ian C., eds., Transitions to Modernity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 137). At the very least, there must be some minimum shared values that serve as the basis for a national identity and that provide the group solidarity required to organize and mobilize around this.

7 For the argument that self-determination does not necessarily require a territorial claim, see Moore, Margaret, “On National Self-determination,” Political Studies 45 (1997), 900913; Tamir, Yael, “The Right to National Self-Determination,” Social Research 58 (1991), 565590; and Tamir, Liberal Nationalism The literature on nationalism is too extensive to cite here. For a representative sample, see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (rev. ed.; London: Verso, 1991); Breuilly, John, Nationalism and the State (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Gellner, Nations and Nationalism; Hall, John A., “Nationalisms: Classified and Explained,” Daedalus 122 (1995), 128; Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Canto, [1990] 1994); Mann, “The Emergence of Modern European Nationalism”; Seton-Watson, Hugh, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (London: Methuen, 1977); Smith, Anthony D., The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); and Smith, Anthony D., ed., Nationalist Movements (London: Macmillan, 1976).

8 I purposefully focus on nationalists-in-government because this subset of organized nationalist actors provides us with empirical evidence of my claim.

9 Barry, Brian, “Nationalism versus Liberalism?Nations and Nationalism 2 (1996), 430.

10 Waldron, Jeremy, “Can Communal Goods Be Human Rights?Archives européennes de sociologie 27 (1987), 296321.

11 Since its creation in 1968, the PQ has won the provincial elections of 1976, 1981, 1994 and 1998. The CDC has governed Catalonia since 1980 as part of the alliance Convergència i Unió (CiU) with its partner, the Christian democratic Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC). CiU won the Catalan parliamentary elections of 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1995 and 1999. The CDC is the senior partner of the alliance and its leader, Jordi Pujol, has been president of the Catalan parliament since 1980.

12 I am aware that sometimes these decisions are not the product of a democratic debate since they take place in undemocratic settings. Such cases are not the concern here.

13 I thank the Journal reviewers for their extensive comments on this section.

14 For a discussion of cultural and instrumental forms of nationalism, see Meadwell, Hudson, “Cultural and Instrumental Approaches to Ethnic Nationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 12 (1989), 309328.

15 Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, 57–58.

16 McMahan, “The Limits of National Partiality,” 121.

17 Miller, On Nationality, 45.

18 Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, El Nacionalisme en la Catalunya d'Avui [Nationalism in Today's Catalonia], Textos CDC-19 (Barcelona: January 30–31, February 1, 1981), 13.

19 Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, 33.

20 Ibid., 30.

21 Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, 175.

22 Jordi Pujol, “Convèrgencia Democràtica de Catalunya: què ha estat, què ès, que volem que sigui” (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia: what it has been, what it is, and what we want it to become), Teatre Tivoli, June 17, 1996, in Guibernau, Montserrat, “Images of Catalonia,” Nations and Nationalism 3 (1997), 104 (emphasis added).

23 Walzer, Michael, On Toleration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 26.

24 Ibid., 42.

25 Ibid., 47.

26 Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, 164–66.

27 Ibid., 164.

28 Ibid., 58.

29 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, 126.

30 Miller, On Nationality, 148–49.

31 Walzer, On Toleration, 25.

32 Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, chap. 6.

33 Fierlbeck, Katherine, “The Ambivalent Potential of Cultural Identity,” this Journal 29 (1996), 2122.

34 Ripstein, Arthur, “Context, Continuity, and Fairness,” in McKim, and McMahan, , eds., The Morality of Nationalism, 209226.

35 Breuilly, Nationalism and the State, 2. By “independent” Breuilly does not mean “secessionist” nor do I mean to say that that all nations seek political independence or even limited sovereignty. The sense of statement (C) is that the nation must be able to engage in collective decision making without the threat of outside interference. The fulfillment of this objective might require different institutional arrangements across cases, depending on the degree of non-interference sought.

36 Waldron, “Can Communal Goods Be Human Rights?” 310.

37 In her discussion of Waldron's use of communal goods, Tamir confuses public and communal goods: “Waldron defines communal goods as goods jointly produced and nonexcludable” (Liberal Nationalism, 46). This is how he defines public goods, which he maintains can be individualized, not communal goods, which he maintains cannot. See Waldron, “Can Communal Goods Be Human Rights?” 304.

38 Ibid., 309.

39 Ibid., 313 (emphasis in original).

40 Hurka, “The Justification of National Partiality,” 145. As McMahan (“The Limits of National Partiality”) and Hurka use the term “impersonal” good, they mean that it is not reducible to the good of any one individual.

41 Waldron, “Can Communal Goods Be Human Rights?” 313.

42 I am indebted to a Journal reviewer for pointing this fact out to me.

43 Taylor, Charles, “Shared and Divergent Values,” in Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, edited by Laforest, Guy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993), 176 (emphasis added).

44 Hechter, Michael, Principles of Group Solidarity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 10 (emphasis in original). Hechter uses the term “joint” good but we can substitute “communal” good for our purposes.

45 Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 33–34.

46 “Alvarez de Miranda pide mayor claridad y que el uso de la lengua sea voluntario” (Alvarez de Miranda [ombudsman] asks for more clarity and that the use of the language be voluntary), El Pais (Internet Edition), April 9, 1998.

47 For the Canadian case see, Eisenberg, Avigail, “The Politics of Individual and Group Differences in Canadian Jurisprudence,” this Journal 27 (1994), 322.

48 There are also means for nationalists-in-government to counteract these efforts. The Quebec government invoked the notwithstanding clause, section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, after the courts ruled that French-only commercial signs were unconstitutional. For a five-year period, the Quebec government was able to override the justices' decision and prescribe the exclusive use of French on signs. The issue was finally resolved when the government chose to initiate a public discussion on the subject and through a democratic dialogue agreed to bring its legislation into line with the judicial ruling.

49 “Jordi Pujol pide al resto de Espafia que acepte el hecho diferencial de Cataluna” (Jordi Pujol asks that the rest of Spain accept the differential fact of Catalonia), El Pais (Barcelona), July 2, 1996, 2.

50 “Pujol critica que las demás autonomias quieran iguales competencias que Cataluñia” (Pujol criticizes the fact that the other autonomous communities want the same competencies as Catalonia), El Pais (Barcelona), July 1, 1996, 1.

51 Tamir, Liberal Nationalism, 37. See also Tamir, “The Right to National Self-Determination.”

52 Philpott, “In Defense of Self-Determination”; Margalit, Avishai and Raz, Joseph, “National Self-Determination,” The Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990), 439461; and Slattery, Brian, “The Paradoxes of National Self-Determination,” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 32 (1994), 703733. For a more explicit discussion of national self-determination, see Moore, “On National Self-determination.” For a comprehensive discussion of the evolution of the term self-determination, its practice and application in international law, see Danspeckgruber, Wolfgang, ed., with Watts, Arthur, Self-Determination and Self-Administration: A Sourcebook (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1997).

53 Moore, “On National Self-determination,” 900.

54 The classic account is Lijphart, Arend, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

55 Elazar, Daniel, Federalism and the Way to Peace (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 1994), 165. Indeed, Elazar is doubtful that federalism could be successful in multi-ethnic states: “Ethnic nationalism is the most ego-centric of all nationalism, and the most difficult basis on which to erect a system of constitutionalized power-sharing; the essence of federalism” (168).

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, St. John's, 1997, and the Midwest Political Science Association in 1998. For their comments and suggestions, the author wishes to thank the following people: Jane Arscott, James Booth, William Caspary, Francois Houle, Antonia Maioni, Pierre Martin, Hudson Meadwell, Mike Murphy and the anonymous Journal reviewers. She also thanks Marie-Joelle Zahar for the French-language abstract. The financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and a Kill am Postdoctoral Fellowship from Dalhousie University are gratefully acknowledged.


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